Davy Rothbart on basketball, the Midwest and Medora
As editor of Found Magazine and a contributor to This American Life, Davy Rothbart has devoted himself to mining humor and pathos from the lives of strangers. When he learned about the Medora Hornets, a high school basketball team suffering through a nasty losing streak in a factory-gutted Heartland community, he knew he had tell their story. He spent the next year-and-a-half embedded in Medora, Indiana, chronicling the lives of these young basketball players at home and on the court. Rothbart will be at a screening of Medora at the SIE FilmCenter on Tuesday, April 15. In advance of his trip to Denver, Westword spoke with him about his newest feature documentary.
Medora Medora tells the story of the Medora Hornets, a basketball team struggling for just one win.
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Westword: Talk about what you're going to be screening in Denver.
Davy Rothbart: I made a film, a documentary, called Medora. It's the story of a small town in rural Indiana called Medora. Medora is one of these towns where things shut down and things are pretty dire. Some people say that Medora is a meth town. The film focuses on four boys or teenagers in the town, and they all play for the high school basketball team, the Medora Hornets. The basketball team hasn't won a game in years. They play against bigger, consolidated schools and Medora is a smaller school. You really get a look into these kids' lives, their home lives and then, of course, on the basketball court, where the team hasn't won for years. Most documentaries focus on a team that's trying to win a championship or something, and they're just trying to win one game. Every game has drama as if it was a championship game. It might be the one game that they play that they win. As you get to know these kids, you fall in love with them and you want so badly for something good to happen in their lives, whether it's winning a game or overcoming some of the personal things that their families are going through.
There was an article in the New York Times that inspired our film. We went down there. We came to town with a few friends and a few cameras, and we filmed for over a year and a half. When we first got there, one of the kids we met was Rusty Rogers, whose mom had some struggles with alcohol and some substance abuse problems. He was intentionally homeless, living out of his car, and one of the teammates' families let him stay with them. We met a kid named Dylan McSoley who had never met his dad. Over the course of the season he was trying to wrestle with what he might want to become and what he might want to do, but also whether he wanted to locate and track down his dad, which he was finally able to. Their relationship is eally fascinating. There is a kid named Chaz Cowles. He had been locked up on a gun charge, and was trying to stay out of trouble and stay on the team. You know, it's really raw as a film.
It's really exciting to be able to share it with people. It's going to be featured on PBS in the next few weeks. And we will be having a special screening, and I will get to be there in person and show the film and introduce it and kind of share some of the stories. I think for people who've seen the film, they're really eager to learn more about what it was like and all about Medora and the experience of making the film. There are stories I can share about the film itself. I've never been to the Denver Film Society, but I hear it's a great place.
What it was like to shoot this film and to get to know these kids? What was your process?
This was a pretty rural place. It was hill country in southern Indiana, near the Kentucky border. It might seem weird to roll in here and start filming. It's not the kind of town that you imagine is the friendliest to outsiders. But I'll say this: Two things happened. Andy and I, we're both from Michigan. We actually met on a basketball court in Ann Arbor where we were growing up. We are both basketball lovers, and we're both documentary film junkies, so this was an exciting thing to work on together. We're not some big Hollywood film crew, even though we're from Los Angeles. Andy's from a town that's smaller than Medora; Medora has 500 people. I think when we came in we weren't seen as total outsiders. We told people that we were Midwestern and small-town guys. We're from towns like Medora outside of Ann Arbor.
When you're genuinely curious and you care about people, it's amazing how eager people will be to share stories with you. A lot of times, people in a forgotten town like this, they don't get a voice. Nobody in the outside world really cares what happens to them or to their town. Then people like us, who care a lot and are very interested in their lives, show up. I think many people really warm up and find it really enjoyable to talk about what matters to them. People were open to us and ultimately we were just really grateful for their generosity and their welcoming spirit.
Andrew always makes a point, which is a good one. It's not like we were flying home to L.A. on the weekends -- you know, what's referred to as drive-by filmmaking, where you show up once or twice a month. We lived not in Medora, but in the next town over. So we were there in Indiana for months at a time, and we were very involved in the life of the community. And the people in town, we met every one of them and got to know just about every one of them. Embedding that deeply allowed us to make a really meaningful film.
Read on for more from Davy Rothbart.